Friday, July 19, 2024

Sushi at The Mad Monkfish in Cambridge’s Central Square. (Photo: Tom Meek)

When I’m jonesing for sushi and more, I too often forget about the loaded pan-Asian menu at Mad Monkfish in Central Square – a name changed from Thelonious Monkfish after contact from the estate of the jazz great. But with Pho House and Mix-it closing in the Porter Square area (which still has the very serviceable One Ramen), options have shrunk, which has my mind turning more to the Mad Monkfish. It’s been holding its own since 2011 among eclectic area eateries that include Little Donkey, Shoju, Miracle of Science, Pagu, Si Cara and, added most recently, Althea.

The cozy space has a Thai feel and an intimate bar – separate from the sushi bar – with a Tiki vibe. Monkfish doesn’t feel particularly spacious, but that’s deceptive. On second look, banquettes line one side of the vibrant dining area and by the entryway there’s a riser where jazz trios, quartets and ensembles set up and play while you dine. Now that Ryles in Inman Square is long gone, Monkfish is one of the few remaining places to catch jazz regularly in Cambridge aside from Regattabar in Harvard Square. The flowing street life of Massachusetts Avenue forms the backdrop to the well-attired performers enchanting you with smooth, soulful tunes, and all you have to do is sit back and nosh on carefully crafted maki, drink an Asian-themed cocktail and occasionally clap for the musicians flawlessly curating the ambiance.

The Mad Monkfish has a pan-Asian menu that includes bao. (Photo: Tom Meek)

The menu, which I’m told has been pared down from past iterations, features Thai classics such as chicken satay, basil fried rice, tom yum soup and a long list of inventive spins on maki (the “Fairy Tale Sushi” section features selections inspired by Rumpelstiltskin and Red Riding Hood, and there are jazz riffs too, such as Mack the Knife, BBop and C Jazz Jam rolls). The basic sushi offerings of yellowtail, salmon and eel are fresh. Then there are noodles, baos, ramen and donburi bowls. Intriguing items include the cranberry-teriyaki salmon, tom yum grilled scallops and duck lychee curry. Duck is something Monkfish does particularly well. The roasted duck bao is a must, with lean and flavorful meat in a perfectly steamed bun with just the right amount of sauce and vegetable accent (fresh cilantro!). There’s an Ancient Fried Rice that comes with a generous amount of that roasted duck on the bone as well as crispy bacon, shiitake mushrooms, basil, ginger and more. The under-the-radar hit in my humble estimation is the mushroom soba noodles, which hails from the vegetarian side of the house. It’s a savory yet light please-you that comes with four kinds of mushrooms – enoki, cremini, shiitake and portobello – sautéed and mixed in with meaty soba noodles, fried tofu and other veggies, all bound by a puckering soy sesame sauce. 

Since there’s so much to choose from, the best way to enjoy the full essence of what Monkfish has to offer without becoming the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man is a little bit of this and little bit of that. Get a bao and a maki roll, maybe a few pieces of nigiri, a starter soup and a perhaps a dish of fried rice or noodles – perfect to share with a partner, or nosh solo and get a box of leftovers to take home. There will always be more on the menu to want.

Monkfish offers a special lunch menu of Thai noodles or fried rice. 

The Mad Monkfish, 524 Massachusetts Ave., Central Square, Cambridge

Tom Meek is a writer living in Cambridge. His reviews, essays, short stories and articles have appeared in the WBUR ARTery, The Boston Phoenix, The Boston Globe, The Rumpus, The Charleston City Paper and SLAB literary journal. Tom is also a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics and rides his bike everywhere.